Review: Mark Wahlberg Seeks Atonement in the Parental Drama Good Joe Bell

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“People think it’s easier these days,” a gay man says to the titular character of Good Joe Bell, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14. The men are at a gay bar, discussing the ways that kids like Joe’s late son are still, even in this supposedly enlightened era, bullied and worse for their perceived or actual difference. It is easier these days, being gay, for some people, in some places. But even for a kid like Jadin Bell, a white cisgender boy who died by suicide at age 15 in 2013, realizing and expressing one’s sexual orientation can be an impossible crucible.

The good work of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s gentle, slight film is in reminding us of that plain and bitter fact. Queer kids are still relentlessly marginalized and harassed in places all across America, as an entire nation’s prejudices do not suddenly shift with major court decisions or an increase in representation in the arts. Jadin Bell, despite the many social and political advancements made before and during his short lifetime, was still relentlessly antagonized at school and online, because he was gay.

His father, Joe (Mark Wahlberg), realized that, to some extent, while Jadin was alive. But not nearly enough to truly help his son. Suddenly, then, Jadin was gone, and Joe was left to stagger in the loss, trying to apologize to Jadin in some symbolic way, as symbolism was the only option left to him. He decided, rather wildly, to walk across America, from La Grande, Oregon to New York City, where Jadin hoped to live once he escaped the oppressive confines of his hometown. Along the way, Bell gave stilted, halting lectures on the dangers of bullying, urging students and parents to be kind, to not judge, to love first and unconditionally. It was a worthy message, if a rather inexact one. Still, it was something. Too little, far too late, but something. Six months into his trek, Joe was hit by a truck and killed, his mission incomplete.

Though, it was probably always going to be incomplete, which is the urgent and surprisingly sober conclusion of Good Joe Bell. The film, written by Brokeback Mountain scribes Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, does not traffic in many platitudes. There is no easy forgiveness for Joe, nor for any parent who—as Joe admits he did, in one theme-heavy scene that somehow doesn’t overdo it—centers themselves, their hang-ups and discomforts, in their child’s coming out journey. The film is, in some senses, a warning, a PSA staged with enough artistry to offset the didacticism. Green—who employed a similarly elegant touch to his 2018 police-shooting triptych Monsters and Men—lets the film lilt around Joe and his sorrow, without dragging anyone’s gaze up toward redemption. It’s a disarmingly tough-minded film in that way, even when it’s sentimental.

That Joe is played by Wahlberg gives the film a curious extra dimension. Wahlberg, in his long career as a musician and actor, has said some uncharitable—or flat-out bigoted—things about gay people. He produced a show, Entourage, that made a regular mockery of its one recurring gay character. He has often seemed to be exactly the kind of asshole who menaced me in my own Boston upbringing as I came out. (To say nothing of a particular act of racist violence Wahlberg perpetrated in his youth.)

Becoming a movie star, though, washes a lot away, unjustly or not. Wahlberg has largely enjoyed success without getting much mainstream pushback for his words and deeds. The criticism has always been there, but Wahlberg has ever risen, buoyed by a largely supportive industry. So I suppose in the most cynical of ways, Wahlberg never needed to atone for anything. He’s made his millions, earned an Oscar nomination. What material reason did he have to reckon with himself? His appearance in this film, then—a seemingly pure act of volition, perhaps meant to reflect an evolving personal ethos—earns some begrudging respect. Again, it’s maybe not enough, but it’s something.

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